As a stress hormone and neurotransmitter, norepinephrine plays a key role in many mental disorders. It’s vital to keep your norepinephrine level balanced.
Norepinephrine gets much less attention than the other main stress hormone, cortisol.
And that’s certainly understandable.
Cortisol is well-known for the damage it causes.
But in some significant ways, norepinephrine is equally important to overall mental health.
What Is Norepinephrine? What Does It Do?
Norepinephrine is a dual-purpose chemical messenger that acts as both a stress hormone and a neurotransmitter.
It’s sometimes called noradrenaline, especially in the United Kingdom, but here in the US, norepinephrine is the preferred term.
Norepinephrine is made in the brain, the central nervous system, and in the adrenal glands.
Its name literally means “alongside the kidneys,” referring to its synthesis in the adrenal glands. (3)
Norepinephrine, along with epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), triggers the “fight or flight response” in the face of danger or extreme stress.
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It helps you think and move fast in an emergency.
It increases heart rate and blood pressure, directs blood flow away from skin and into muscles, and triggers the release of glucose into the bloodstream.
Norepinephrine differs from cortisol in that it’s created on an as-needed basis and dissipates quickly after the perceived danger or stressful situation is over.
Cortisol, on the other hand, lingers in the body where it accumulates, contributing to diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. (4)
The Link Between Norepinephrine and Depression
No one, including the experts, fully understands the biochemical causes of depression.
It is known, however, that norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine — neurotransmitters that belong to a group of compounds known as monoamines — play a role in mood regulation. (5)
The most popular theory of depression is that it’s caused by low serotonin.
This is why the most popular antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which work by increasing serotonin levels.
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Other theories posit that depression is caused by brain inflammation, low dopamine, or low norepinephrine. (6)
The main symptoms of low norepinephrine-based depression are feelings of lethargy, brain fog, and lack of zest for life.
These symptoms are very similar to depression that’s linked to low dopamine.
This makes sense since these two compounds are extremely similar in structure and function.
Both are formed from the same amino acid precursors — tyrosine and phenylalanine — and both are essential for maintaining alertness, focus, and motivation.
The biggest differences between dopamine and norepinephrine are that they are created in different areas of the brain and act on different receptors. (7)
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Antidepressants’ Effects on Key Neurotransmitters
Most prescription antidepressants work by increasing serotonin levels, with a few working on dopamine or norepinephrine, or a combination thereof.
Wellbutrin, for example, blocks the reabsorption of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. (8)
Cymbalta is a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) that works by increasing both norepinephrine and serotonin. (9)
Tricyclics, some of the oldest antidepressants, work by increasing both serotonin and norepinephrine, while blocking the action of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter of memory and learning. (10)
It’s pretty easy to see why prescribing antidepressants can get complicated and why no single prescription antidepressant works for everyone.
Norepinephrine Deficiency and ADHD
Another common disorder linked to norepinephrine is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The conventional treatment for ADHD is a prescription stimulant like Ritalin or Adderall, possibly accompanied by behavioral therapy.
Most ADHD medications are based on the assumption that those with attention disorders are deficient in dopamine or norepinephrine. (11)
When you can’t focus or sit still, taking a stimulant would seem to be counterproductive but here’s how this works.
These drugs stimulate the release of dopamine and norepinephrine and slow their rate of reabsorption, allowing more of the neurotransmitter to properly bind to its receptors. (12)
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This allows you to make better use of available norepinephrine and dopamine.
These drugs can make you feel more alert, focused, and mentally clear — whether you have ADHD or not.
Adderall and Ritalin are sometimes used off-label (and often illegally) as smart drugs by college students and those in high-pressure occupations who seek a mental edge.
You don’t have to rely on drugs to increase norepinephrine to manage ADHD.
John Ratey, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and bestselling author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, has spent decades studying the effects of physical exercise on the brain.
He’s found that exercise effectively mitigates ADHD symptoms by raising both norepinephrine and dopamine, thereby regulating the attention system.
Norepinephrine Imbalance and Other Mental Disorders
Norepinephrine is linked to a substantial number of mental health disorders.
As with any neurotransmitter, your levels can be either too high or too low, and nowhere is that more apparent than with norepinephrine.
When you have too much norepinephrine, you’ll tend towards anxiety and insomnia.
A sudden burst can even trigger a panic attack.
Conversely, a norepinephrine deficiency can leave you fatigued and depressed, with little interest in life.
People with both fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome have low norepinephrine levels.
Bipolar disorder, which is characterized by excessive mood swings, is linked to an imbalance of norepinephrine. (13)
It’s suspected that high levels cause the manic phase while low levels cause the depression phase.
Debilitating migraine headaches may also be a norepinephrine-related disorder that occurs when the sympathetic nervous system’s stores of this brain chemical are depleted. (14)
Parkinson’s, a motor control disease, is usually associated with the death of neurons in the area of the brain that produce dopamine.
But there’s evidence that the problem may be due to norepinephrine as well. (15)
The loss of norepinephrine may explain some of the non-movement symptoms of this disease such as fatigue and irregular blood pressure. (16)
Norepinephrine deficiency may be a contributing factor to Alzheimer’s disease.
Normally norepinephrine suppresses brain inflammation which is a possible underlying cause of Alzheimer’s.
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Balance Norepinephrine Naturally with Foods, Supplements, and More
Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may suggest a norepinephrine-altering drug like an SNRI, Wellbutrin, or Adderall.
But finding the right cocktail is hit or miss and these medications often have unwanted side effects.
Here are some ways to balance norepinephrine levels naturally.
The amino acid tyrosine is the basic building block of norepinephrine.
You can eat foods that contain either tyrosine or phenylalanine, another amino acid that converts into tyrosine.
Virtually all animal products are good sources of both tyrosine and phenylalanine.
The foods that increase norepinephrine will be very similar to those that increase dopamine.
Here are some foods that can specifically increase norepinephrine: (19)
- beans and legumes
- fish and seafood
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Norepinephrine is not available in pill form as either a supplement or a drug.
Medically, intravenous norepinephrine is used to raise dangerously low blood pressure in emergency situations such as when a patient is in shock or having a heart attack. (20)
But you can take supplements that encourage the synthesis of norepinephrine instead.
L-tyrosine, a precursor of both norepinephrine and dopamine, is a good natural option to consider if you have norepinephrine-related depression, and it can work surprisingly fast.
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Phenylalanine is a master precursor that gets converted into norepinephrine, tyrosine, dopamine, and epinephrine. (27)
Phenylalanine supplements are available in the “d” form or the “l” form.
L-phenylalanine is the natural version while d-phenylalanine is synthesized in the lab.
Some supplements combine both and are called d,l-phenylalanine or DLPA.
Another amino acid, l-carnitine, is an excellent brain booster and natural antidepressant that works by increasing levels of both norepinephrine and serotonin.
If you decide to give it a try, be sure to use acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR), a highly bioavailable form of l-carnitine that readily enters the brain. (28)
4. Arctic root
Arctic root (Rhodiola rosea) is a popular adaptogenic herb that reduces depression symptoms as well as antidepressant medications. (29)
It works by decreasing cortisol levels while increasing levels of norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. (30)
5. Velvet bean
Velvet bean or cowhage (Mucuna pruriens) is an herbal remedy that contains l-dopa, a dopamine precursor.
It’s useful for treating Parkinson’s — one study found it was as effective as typical medications but it worked faster and with fewer side effects. (31)
Velvet bean seeds are also a rich source of both norepinephrine and epinephrine. (32)
Skip velvet bean if you have low blood pressure or take hypertension medications as it can cause blood pressure to drop too low. (33)
6. Asian ginseng
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is one of the world’s most powerful natural remedies.
It’s been widely used in Asia for thousands of years as a tonic that brings long life, strength, and wisdom to those who take it.
It reduces the stress hormone cortisol while strengthening the adrenal glands.
Compounds unique to ginseng, ginsenosides, increase both norepinephrine and dopamine concentrations in the brain. (34)
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While I would never recommend smoking in order to ingest nicotine, low-dose nicotine patches can reduce signs of depression, even in non-smokers, by stimulating the release of norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. (35, 36)
Many college students, biohackers, and seniors are already self-medicating with nicotine to improve mental performance.
Before using nicotine in any form for any of these disorders, be sure to talk to your doctor first.
Other Tips for Increasing Norepinephrine
Besides food and supplements, here are a few more norepinephrine-boosting tips.
We’ve already noted how exercise increases the feel-good brain chemicals.
If you’re game, you can enhance the effects of your exercise by finishing up with a cold water plunge.
Jumping into cold water increases norepinephrine levels by two to three times within minutes. (38)
If extreme cold doesn’t sound appealing, take a sauna instead.
Supplements to Decrease High Norepinephrine Levels
The overwhelming majority of neurotransmitter imbalances are on the low side, but not everyone has low norepinephrine.
If you are among those with a high level of norepinephrine, it can really impact your life.
Signs of high norepinephrine include racing thoughts, anxiety, and high blood pressure.
If your friends have ever referred to you as an adrenaline junkie or drama queen, or you are prone to addictions, you have high norepinephrine along with high dopamine.
While there aren’t as many natural remedies as there are for increasing low norepinephrine, there are some interesting options to lower norepinephrine that use common natural remedies in unexpected ways.
5-HTP is a popular supplement for depression, insomnia, and anxiety.
It works mainly by boosting serotonin, but it also depletes norepinephrine, dopamine, and epinephrine. (41)
You can use this “side effect” to your advantage if you have high norepinephrine.
Melatonin is your body’s natural sleep hormone and a common sleep supplement.
Weirdly, simply getting up and moving around causes norepinephrine levels to go back up.
One of the most unusual tips I’ve come across for reducing norepinephrine is the use of baking soda.
While this may sound like some unsubstantiated old wives’ tale, surprisingly, I found this tip in the United States National Library of Medicine’s online database. (44)
Research shows that taking baking soda after exercising can reduce norepinephrine levels by as much as 30%.
Balancing Norepinephrine: Take the Next Step
Norepinephrine is a stress hormone and neurotransmitter that helps the body respond to dangerous and stressful situations.
Your level of norepinephrine can be too low, leading to depression and ADHD, or too high, contributing to anxiety.
Norepinephrine is closely linked to both epinephrine (adrenaline) and dopamine in both function and structure.
Common medications such as antidepressants and stimulants work by modifying norepinephrine levels, but finding the right drug for your specific situation is a matter of trial and error.
Fortunately, there are many natural ways to balance norepinephrine levels with food, supplements, exercise, and other lifestyle adjustments.